Remember how fossil fuels were bad and unnecessary and smelly and funding denialism? Then came a cyberattack on the Colonial Pipeline supplying east coast refineries in the United States, and the threatened closure of Enbridge 5 carrying nearly half the petroleum needed in Ontario and Quebec through Michigan. And suddenly it wasn’t just an undergraduate seminar, a fancy conference, a speech crammed with cheap applause lines. There was the real prospect of millions of citizens lacking energy, though mercifully not in the short run under the same weather conditions as Texas in February, and politicians pivoted smoothy from hating pipelines to loving them. But in the long run this circular tube cannot be squared. Either we need oil or we don’t. And as Ben Franklin said, “When the well’s dry, we know the worth of water.” Which ought to have made this one of those famous teachable moments, if only the pupils in question were teachable.
Mercifully Colonial seems to have gotten its pipeline back on line quickly. Though if reports that it paid a $5 million ransom are true it’s discouraging over the long run given the vulnerability of so much infrastructure and Kipling’s warning that “if once you have paid him the Bitcoin you will never be rid of the Hacker.” And so far Enbridge has refused to shut down its pipeline unless legally compelled to, thumbing its nose at Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who promptly thumbed her truncheon back at them. (Yes, the same Gretchen Whitmer who defied her own Covid advisory to fly to Florida in a private jet, being like John Kerry far too busy to use proletarian low-carbon transport.) But the much bigger problem is that everybody who’s anybody is now totally on board with a “Net Zero” plan that means shutting down many such pipelines by 2030, and all by 2050. And what are we going to do then?
If your answer is “big deal you pay a little more” you failed ECON101. Remember that back in 2008 Barack Obama admitted that under his climate plan “electricity rates would necessarily skyrocket”. But the economic literacy of most politicians is so shockingly low, to say nothing of most activists, that far too few of them seem to have realized that prices rise when something becomes more scarce and another way of saying “more scarce” is “we have less”. So the big problem isn’t just paying more. It’s having less. Much less.
NBC of course declared that mere shortages aren’t the issue, only greed: “Pipeline shutdown could lead to price spikes, shortages — and problems for East Coast airports. The biggest threat to gasoline supplies is hoarders, analysts say.” Not the loss of fuel supply, just selfish people trying to protect themselves against the loss of fuel supply… experts say.
It is difficult to believe how little attention governments have paid to the importance of energy. Britain, for instance, is suddenly faced with the threat of France turning off the power to Jersey because of a fishing dispute which, as Ben Marlow wrote in the Telegraph, “should serve as a wake-up call for the UK and energy policy in a post-Brexit world. In a bid to drive polluting fossil fuels out of the energy system, the government has piled into renewables with clean power generating more electricity than gas and coal last year, for the first time ever. But with the intermittent nature of wind and solar power making them less reliable, the UK has been forced to obtain increasing amounts of electricity from Europe through a network of giant subsea interconnectors - transmission cables hundreds of miles long that allow electricity to flow from one country to another - when the wind’s not blowing.” All of which, however foolish, is happening in a world where fossil fuels still backstop green dreams. What happens once they don’t?
The Colonial Pipeline is a very major piece of American energy infrastructure, carrying gas, diesel and jet fuel to 14 states containing a lot of the American population. Just as Enbridge 5 carries 23 million gallons of various forms of oil, and LNG, a day, to two Canadian provinces containing about 60% of our population. Enbridge 5 carries about 45% of all the petroleum refined in those two provinces, and all the propane that reaches southern Ontario, just as Colonial carries 100 million gallons of vital refined products to over a dozen states. (It isn’t surprising to find that Koch Industries is a part-owner of that pipeline. But it is, a bit, to learn that so is the greener than green public pension Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec.)
To lose either would be disastrous. Even the temporary shutdown of Colonial caused major dislocation including dry gas pumps in the American capital as recently as Monday, had the Biden administration contemplating dipping into the military fuel stockpile, and led something called the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, not that the United States has too many government agencies wielding vast regulatory power, to issue an emergency declaration permitting the transport of fuel by roads. Which is even more worrying than bulk shipments by rail. But while trucks had trouble delivering it, at least there was still fuel. And while U.S. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm did blurt out during the crisis that “pipe is the best way to go” when it comes to oil, the Net Zero crowd don’t just plan to get rid of these two pipelines, or their contents, but all the pipelines and everything they carry, at least in the Western world.
Not even the events of the past two weeks have apparently convinced the great and the good that it might not be a great and good idea. Which makes you wonder what would.